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The bridge builders of Tel Aviv

The bridge builders of Tel Aviv

Since May, Stephanie Vox from Germany and Hemdat Sagi from Israel have been working at the Konnect Campus in Tel Aviv, scouting digital mobility solutions for the Volkswagen Group brands. A visit to one of the world’s most innovative start-up scenes.

It’s a sunny November morning in Tel Aviv with a temperature of 23°C. Stephanie Vox welcomes 25 Volkswagen Group managers on the 48th floor of the Midtown Office Tower and explains what Konnect can do for them. “There’s the world of the Volkswagen brands, and there’s this world here,” she says, looking out onto the city’s impressive skyline. “Each can be very enriching for the other. Our job is to hunt out start-ups here in the market as effectively as possible. To know the requirements and needs of the brands inside out. To find the best start-ups for these needs. And ultimately to get the two worlds talking.”

On Spot | Volkswagen Konnect Campus Tel Aviv

Stephanie Vox and her five-person team have spent the last six months or so setting up the Volkswagen Group’s new Konnect Campus in Tel Aviv, right at the heart of what is now probably the trendiest start-up hotspot in the mobility industry. A native of Braunschweig who has been with the Group for eight years, Vox has worked in different functions ranging from corporate marketing to digitalization, boasts excellent connections in the Group and is familiar with the inner workings of the brands. She has lived in San Francisco and Yokohama. That’s one world. For the other world, the highly dynamic market of Israeli start-ups, their ideas and technology solutions for the mobility industry, Vox was able to win over Hemdat Sagi as a business strategist for her concept. Hemdat has vast experience with start-ups and was responsible for developing bilateral economic and trade relations at the Israeli Embassy in Berlin for almost five years. She also knows her home country very well. Merging two worlds, Vox and Sagi have now set out to make the best possible use of their combined start-up expertise in Tel Aviv in line with the Volkswagen Group’s goal of becoming the global market leader in electric mobility. Their tasks range from evaluations of start-ups to executive leadership programs to road maps for collaborations. “Project responsibility ultimately lies with the brands themselves. What we do is initiate, connect and support the project teams at local level,” Stephanie Vox explained.

A strong entrepreneurial spirit

Connecting element – Stephanie Vox and Hemdat Sagi in dialog with managers of the Volkswagen brands in the Konnect office

It is an exciting task – and an extremely lucrative one. For years Tel Aviv’s start-up scene with innovative concepts and high-tech skills for mobility as a service, cyber security and autonomous driving has been causing a sensation worldwide. Many automakers are scouring the market to find the best solutions for their vehicles and digital networks. They are encountering an agile scene that is receiving strong political support. “Israel is a small market focused on international collaboration,” said Stephanie Vox. “At the same time, there is a pronounced entrepreneurial spirit here. There is a great deal of investment and promotion, also at a government level,” Hemdat Sagi added. “What is more, the technology expertise is really impressive. Many young Israelis acquire this during their military service, then go into business for themselves and – even as young founders – have knowledge and skills that are at the forefront globally.”

Take Anagog, for example, the second start-up on the 25 managers’ information gathering tour. Founded in 2010, the cloud-based software helps developers in the mobility sector analyze user behavior using various sensors positioned directly in the user’s smartphone and predict future movement scenarios with the help of AI. “We at Anagog understand how users behave in certain environments,” said Udi Jacobi, SVP Sales & Marketing. “So we make context-related services possible that greatly enhance the user experience, such as for offering customers mobility as a service based on their driving profile.” The high level of data protection is another advantage. Since no data transfer to a backend server is required, users retain full control.

Smart solutions wanted – Vox and Sagi in conversation with Udi Jacobi, SVP Sales & Marketing at Anagog

Israel’s start-up scene is as diverse as the concepts are attractive. There are more than 6,000 start-ups in Israel. With a population of around 8.5 million, this is the highest per capita density in the world – Germany has about half this figure. There are app manufacturers like Nexar that enable hazard detection for vehicles through real-time video. Mobility-as-a-service frontrunners like Via which offer carpooling services for private vehicle owners. Or specialists in driver assistance systems like Mobileye, which was acquired by Intel in 2017 for a staggering USD 15.3 billion.

Open discussion and error culture

The fact that the Volkswagen Group now runs the Konnect Campus in Tel Aviv also has something to do with the different cultures between Israel and Germany, the global company and the start-up scene. “In intensive discussions, we managed to convince the Group management that we need bridge builders on the ground if we are to collaborate successfully with local start-ups,” Stephanie Vox explained. In this case, we are talking about female bridge builders. “Here in Israel, people are far more direct, certainly more chaotic, but also more determined in their dealings with others,” said Hemdat Sagi. “People are not afraid to come out and say what they think.” It is not always easy to bring local leaders and managers from Wolfsburg or Zuffenhausen, Ingolstadt or Mladá Boleslav together in such a way that both sides understand and stimulate each other. “In the digital era, we in the Volkswagen Group must also continue to develop mentally. Become more agile. More team-oriented. Develop an open discussion and error culture. Tel Aviv is a perfect test lab for this,” Stephanie Vox emphasized.

Team players – Vox and Sagi at a business lunch on the Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv

Only recently, the Volkswagen Group announced the establishment of Israel’s first ride hailing service with self-driving electric vehicle, together with Champion Motors and Mobileye. The pilot project dubbed “New Mobility in Israel” is due to start in 2019 and commence regular operation in 2022. 

Working in tandem, Vox and Sagi are a dream team that marry the German corporate mentality and the Israeli startup mentality to create a successful outcome. Both women are team players, both see themselves as cultural border crossers, both welcome frank feedback. “We want to specifically help the brands create better products,” said Stephanie Vox. “We have clear business KPIs. At the same time, we are also helping to drive the necessary cultural change in our company – so that Volkswagen can continue to play a leading global role in the e-era.”